The Suspect (용의자, Won Shin-yeon, 2013)

suspect posterNorth Koreans have become the go to bad guys recently, and so North Korean spies have become the instigators of fear and paranoia in many a contemporary political thriller. The Suspect (용의자, Yonguija), however, is quick to point the finger at a larger evil – personal greed, dodgy morals, and the all powerful reach of global corporations. Opting for a high octane action fest rather than a convoluted plot structure, Won’s approach is (mostly) an uncomplicated one as a wronged man pursues his revenge or redemption with no thought for his own future, only to be presented with the unexpected offering of one anyway alongside the equally unexpected bonus of exposing an international conspiracy.

Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo) is former top North Korean asset now defected to the South and working as a driver for an important CEO. His boss thinks he ought to just go home, but Ji has a mission – he’s looking for a former friend, also defected, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter as part of a wide ranging purge following the accession of Kim Jong-un. Taking pity on him, the CEO eventually gives him the address of his target, adding that he hopes Ji can learn to forgive him (which seems unlikely), but is assassinated by other agents that same night. Arriving at the scene too late, Ji finds himself framed for the killing and charged with taking care of a secret message also in the CEO’s possession at the time of his death. Teaming up with a documentary filmmaker, Ji is now on the run and determined to find his former friend turned mortal enemy before the authorities catch up with him whilst also trying to work out what to do with his boss’ coded message.

Family, debts of honour, and bonds between men are at the centre of this fast paced thriller as Ji attempts to navigate this ever changing conspiracy torn between friends turned enemies and enemies who may become friends. His main adversary is a government agent, Min (Park Hee-Soon), whom he previously encountered during a mission in Hong Kong during which he made the decision to spare Min’s life after catching sight of a photo of his wife and son in his wallet. Min, however, is less than grateful as the failed mission greatly damaged his career prospects and so he has a personal grudge with Ji which he hopes to exorcise through arresting him. On the other side, Ji is also on the hunt for his former training buddy, Lee (Kim Sung-Kyun), whom he believes to have been responsible for the death of his own wife and child though later discovers that perhaps they have all merely been pawns in a much larger game.

The larger game appears to include worldwide arms sales by turns frustrated and conducted by North Korean agents. The conspiracy, however, is very much home grown in terms of its South Korean genesis but makes clear the complicated relationship between the two territories which is very much open to abuse by those who have access to both sides. The big bad turns out not to be the totalitarian regime with its constant purges and rigid enforcement of its political power, but the greedy and venal, power hungry petty officials of the democratic regime working in concert with big business.

Won has obviously drawn inspiration from the first Bourne film, offering several blatant homages including a long car chase referencing The Italian Job by proxy. His shaky cam aesthetic is perhaps overworked, but the fight scenes are undoubtedly impressive, anchored by the astounding performance of unlikely action star Gong Yoo – hitherto known as a sensitive leading man and frequent romantic lead. Having piled on the pounds, Gong is a credible vengeful presence apparently providing many of his own stunts including a strangely overblown sequence which sees him rock climbing bare chested only to emerge panting and glistening next to the flapping North Korean flag. Nevertheless, his near silent performance is a masterclass of physical acting, adding a much needed emotional dimension to the otherwise straightforward script which leaves little time for character development in between its admittedly impressive set pieces. Overlong yet moving at a rip roaring pace, The Suspect is a surprisingly well photographed action fest which manages to add a degree of pathos to its closing scenes even if failing to completely earn it whilst engaging in a series of subtle political allegories.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Kang Woo-suk, 2016)

map-against-the-worldThe map is not the territory – as the old adage goes. There’s always a difference between the thing itself and the perception of it but, as the “hero” of The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Gosanja, Daedongyeojido) points out, if you’re about to set off on a long journey it’s a good idea to not to rely on a linear map else you’ll run out of good shoes long before you reach your destination. Kim Jeong-ho (Cha Seung-Won) was, apparently, a real person (though little is known about him) who set out to make a proper map of the Korean peninsula after a cartographic error led to the death of his father and many other men from his village when they ran out of resources crossing what they thought was one mountain but turned out to be one mountain range.

The difficulty here is that The Map Around the World pivots around a man who is so crazed and obsessive in his quest that he causes serious problems not only for himself in a difficult political climate, but also for those close to him whose lives he ruins through neglect and abandonment. Is he a hero for following his dreams even though they cost others so dearly? The film seems to say yes, but it’s a difficult message to swallow.

Ever since Kim Jeong-ho’s father died, he’s been obsessed with the idea of creating an accurate map of the Korean peninsula from end to end including the “Dokdo” (or which ever name you wish to use) islands. Consequently, he spends much of his life wandering around on his own which has made him a bit strange. Returning home after a four year absence, Jeong-ho does not seem to be aware that time has been passing even in Seoul and his little daughter, Soon-sil (Nam Ji-hyun), is now all grown up. Jeong-ho also has a kind of relationship with his neighbour, Mrs. Yeonju (Shin Dong-mi), who has been looking after Soon-sil but it’s all a bit awkward.

Aside from Jeong-ho’s terrible performance as a family man, the main intrigue centres around his big philosophy – open access to information for everyone from the nobleman to the peasant. In order to make sure maps remain as accurate as possible, he’s hit on the idea of producing woodblocks so they can be reproduced en masse with fewer errors and then sold to anyone who wants one so that people are free to travel wherever they wish. This is an extraordinarily destabilising idea in the increasingly paranoid world of the late Joseon era under the Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Yu Jun-sang). The woodblocks are dangerous because the elites do not wish the common man to possess that kind of knowledge, would rather people did not travel very much, and there is always the old “national security” fear in which the rulers assert the danger of spies and invaders getting their hands on such an accurate guide to the terrain.

Of course, Heungseon Daewongun ruling as a Regent for his young son means there is also a simmering battle for power running in the background as second tier nobles snap away at each other trying to increase their status in the hope of making a bid for the big chair. Heungseon Daewongun has reason enough to be paranoid but his rule is an austere one in which all foreign elements are to be eliminated in their entirety.

Kim Jeong-ho’s world is difficult and often frightening but Jeong-ho cares for nothing but maps aside from the idea of the free exchange of information. The early part of the film is, broadly, a quirky comedy about an amiable eccentric laughing his way out of trouble whilst evading debt collectors and trying to earn the forgiveness of the women he’s abandoned with nary a word for the last four years.

Jokes about Jeong-ho’s awkward relationship with his neighbour, mild irritation with the idea that his now grown up daughter has a boyfriend, and buddy comedy with the guy helping him carve the woodblocks suddenly seem out of place when the film descends into a morass of cruelty and horror with no apparent warning. Jeong-ho himself is beaten by authorities determined to obtain his maps by underhanded means seeing as Jeong-ho wants them to be available to the people and therefore refuses to surrender them into the “care” of the state. When that doesn’t work, he places himself in line for more harassment, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when a secret sect of Christians (banned for fear of foreignness) is uncovered in the village. Brutally tortured and instructed to denounce others, the villagers are then publicly beheaded. Suddenly, maps don’t seem so important any more.

Nevertheless, Jeong-ho quickly gets over the stubbornness that has cost him the things he held most dear (aside, it seems, from maps) to get right back out there and do some hardcore cartography. The film ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jeong-ho ventures forth on another adventure, edging ever closer to completing his mission, but even if he is about to make his “dream” come true, that same dream has just got a number of people killed. Jeong-ho’s quest to make the maps available to all could be seen as resistance to the oppressiveness of the state, but it isn’t, he just really likes maps and thinks you should too. The Gangchi (otherwise known as “Japanese” sealions, apparently hunted into extinction by Japanese fishermen in the 1970s) frolic happily off the waters of Dokdo as Jeong-ho approaches, but it hardly seems like a cause for celebration.

Over long and tonally inconsistent, The Map Against the World is a frustrating and often dull experience. Hold the map against the world and see what you see, errors and imperfections everywhere. Yet fighting oppression through cartography is a difficult task, and when it comes down to it a map against the world is not enough on its own. Filled with picturesque shots of Korea’s natural beauty, The Map Against the World displays generally high production values but can’t decide if it’s the story of a valiant revolutionary waging a cultural war for freedom of information in the middle of a paranoid dictatorship, or just a film about a madman trying to map ever changing terrain. Jeong-ho’s quest may be a noble one, but his single minded determination and willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives in its service is far from heroic leaving the film’s bittersweet finale feeling very hollow indeed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Black House (검은집, Shin Terra, 2007)

Black House (korea)Yusuke Kishi’s Black House source novel was previously adapted by Yoshimitsu Morita in its native Japan back in 1999, but eight years later the tale made its way to Korea by way of director Shin Terra who opts for a much more straightforward approach than Morita’s characteristically bizarre take. Sold as K-horror, the tone is closer to nasty thriller only giving way to classic slasher action in the final stretch. In eschewing Morita’s idiosyncratic tendency to insert himself into the material, Shin crafts a more mainstream aesthetic, but loses the various layers of social and psychological commentary that went with it.

Juno (Hwang Jung-min) is a mild mannered insurance clerk, new on the job and extremely naive. His first case involves a visit to a hospital with his boss to visit a persistent claimant whom they believe is deliberately scamming the system and possibly with the hospital’s help. In many way, Juno is an innocent, he believed in insurance as a safety net and a power for social good so he’s shocked that anyone would deliberately manipulate the rules in this way – particularly when he discovers some people will go so far as to deliberately maim themselves just to claim on their insurance policies.

Not long after he starts working at the company, Juno gets a strange phone call from a man asking if insurance policies pay out in case of suicide. It’s possible, Juno says – he’ll need to check the policy to make sure. Suddenly worried the person he’s talking to is in a dark place, he starts trying to dissuade him from the idea of taking his own life and unwisely gives a lot of first hand advice despite the highlighted section in his employee guide cautioning him never to reveal personal information to clients. Soon enough, a client has asked for him personally to go out to their remote house and chat about a policy, When he gets there he receives a nasty surprise as the man’s young son has apparently “hanged himself” in the back room. Appalled, Juno waits to greet the police but becomes convinced the man has deliberately killed the boy, who was his step-son, to get the payout on his life insurance.

Juno refuses the claim but Choong-bae, the claimant, won’t give up and starts coming to the office everyday to ask for his money. Choong-bae is a scary looking guy and frightens most of the other staff with his vacant staring. He also has an insurance policy on his wife leading Juno to fear that she is next but his decision to try and alert her to her husband’s plans will prove a mistaken one, drawing him into the web of a dangerous and psychopathic serial killer.

Shin’s adaptation is most likely closer to the original novel but he is far less interested in the psychological or social implications than Morita was. There is no explanation offered for the actions of the killer though the childhood sequences with their reliance on dreams and hearsay remain intact, only with lesser impact. The question of insurance fraud and scamsters, people so desperate for money that they will literally sacrifice an arm or a leg, only exists as background and isn’t presented as a societal problem so much as just something that happens because there are some shameless people out there who would rather play the system than do an honest days work. Juno has also been given his own tragic backstory which tries to play him off as a mirror of the killer though somehow this never quite works and Juno’s own flashbacks are overplayed.

Beginning as a slow burn thriller where Juno plays the nervous, softhearted neophyte as yet uninured to the murkiness of the insurance world, Black House (검은집, Geomeun Jip) takes a huge detour during the final third which sends it into slasher territory when Juno decides to travel to the titular Black House, alone, during the middle of the night, because the police won’t listen to him and there are people in danger. When he gets there he finds a veritable house of horrors with body parts and nooses hanging from the ceiling, blood and carnage everywhere. Then it’s a straightforward fight to the death as Juno faces off against the psychopathic terror despite his nervous disposition culminating in some unexpectedly gory business with a key.

Like most slasher movies, Black House has several endings and finishes on a note of uncertainty but it never quite manages to make its sudden descent into violence work in its favour. Lacking the depth of Morita’s adaptation, Shin’s Black House may have stronger genre influences but with nothing to back them up all that remains at the end is a darker than usual serial killer tale with mild slasher tendencies. A decent enough mainstream thriller, Black House has a lot to offer despite stumbling in its final third but nevertheless lacks a distinctive element to mark it out from similarly themed genre efforts of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: